North Beach and Chinatown–these are two of the culturally richest, most-loved neighborhoods in San Francisco!
Being a Bay Area local, I find myself in San Francisco a few times a month. These two neighborhoods are hands-down my favorite areas in SF to walk around aimlessly.
Here, you can find oodles of traditional restaurants and shops of amazing quality, as well as a high density of bars, hole-in-the-walls, and coffee shops!
Given that there’s so much to see, these iconic SF neighborhoods boast some of the most entertaining urban walks in the city. Both North Beach and Chinatown are quite compact and close to other interesting neighborhoods as well.
Read on to reveal the best things to do in San Francisco’s North Beach and Chinatown.
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Table of Contents
SAN FRANCISCO IN A NUTSHELL
Here’s a quick overview of all the useful info you need to plan an awesome trip!
- When To Go: September to November, though any time of the year is still going to be great, honestly!
- Where To Stay: San Francisco Marriott Marquis Union Square for downtown convenience, Noe’s Nest Bed and Breakfast for charming Victorian vibes near the Mission District, Beck’s Motor Lodge if you plan on renting a car and want free parking (which is rare in the city).
- Nearest Airport: San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and Oakland International Airport (OAK)
- How to Get Around: Public transportation within SF (free parking is hard to come by). If you plan on taking day trips outside of SF, you will need a car. We recommend using Rentalcars.com to find the best deal.
- Must-Do’s: Explore the trendy Mission District, quirky Haight-Ashbury, and buzzing Chinatown and North Beach neighborhoods. Explore Fisherman’s Wharf with a sourdough bread bowl filled with clam chowder. Take a ferry ride over to explore Alcatraz Island. Go to the Saturday Farmers Market at the Ferry Building. Get pastries at b. Patisserie or Tartine Bakery.
- Before You Go: Pack your puffy jacket, windbreaker, and a beanie no matter the time of year — SF’s weather can be unpredictable, and fog/wind can strike at any moment within the city!
- Money Tip: If you plan to do a lot of sightseeing, consider picking up a CityPASS or Go City San Francisco attraction pass! These passes have the potential to save you a ton of money on paid attractions and tours throughout the city.
Looking to see more of San Francisco, CA?
- Check out this exciting, jam-packed half-day San Francisco City Tour
- CityPASS: Save 44% on San Francisco’s Muni and Cable Car rides plus admission to 4 best SF attractions
BEST TIME TO VISIT SAN FRANCISCO, CA
In our humble opinion, the best time to visit San Francisco is from September to November. Unlike many other places in the US, the fall season offers some of the city’s warmest and most pleasant temperatures. Unless there’s a massive heatwave in effect, summer temps usually hover in the 60’s and 70’s. The other benefit of traveling during these months is that there will be fewer crowds than in the summertime.
Spring is another good time to visit thanks to its mild temperatures and lack of rain. Summers are great too, but just expect higher than average tourism as most travelers tend to seek out sunny weather activities in the city.
If you’re just looking to avoid rain, any time from April to November is good.
Regardless of when you choose to visit San Francisco, be sure to bring plenty of layers. Similar to other California coastal cities/towns, the weather here can be so unpredictable (one minute brisk and foggy, the next minute warm and sunny). Below is a photo of a chilly, brisk, and foggy afternoon in mid-July!
BEST THINGS TO DO IN SAN FRANCISCO’S NORTH BEACH
Walk along Columbus Avenue
Along Columbus Ave., you will see the highest density of Italian cafes and coffee shops in San Francisco. Enjoy a cup of finely prepared cappuccino at Caffe Puccini or Caffe Greco while watching people go by. Across the street from Cafe Puccini is a well-known Italian bakery, Stella Pastry. Why not make a stop here to pick up some Italian cookies to bring home as food souvenirs!
Relax in Washington Square Park
This much-loved park is the community center of North Beach. On sunny days, you can find locals relaxing in Washington Square Park, located right in front of Saints Peter and Paul Church, known as the “Italian Cathedral of the West”.
Since it is a bit smaller than some of the other iconic parks in SF, the park draws a smaller crowd than Dolores Park and Fort Greene, but the atmosphere is still quintessentially San Francisco. People have afternoon picnics, older Chinese practice their tai chi, and neighbors gather to play with their dogs here. It’s a great place to rest and relax.
Climb to the top of Pioneer Park
Pioneer Park is located at the top of Telegraph Hill. The park includes Coit Tower (which is right at the top in the middle of the park), a statue of Christopher Columbus, the Filbert Steps and the Greenwich Steps leading down the west side of the mountain, and, from various points around the park, great views of San Francisco Bay, the Bay Bridge, Golden Gate Bridge, and Alcatraz Island.
I would recommend stretching out your legs and walking around Pioneer Park rather than driving around it, as it’s much more pleasant than sitting in a long line of slow-moving cars. It is about a 6-block walk from Washington Square via Filbert St. If you’re lucky, you might spot the famed wild parrots who live in the branches of the Telegraph Hill trees (though it’s been noted that sightings are rarer these days).
Climb the Filbert Street Steps
Filbert Street runs from The Presidio to Telegraph Hill where the street ends in a set of steps surrounded by delightful greenery. Take the steps either up to the top of Telegraph Hill for a great workout or descend on the eastern slope towards the bay.
Either way, you’ll be soaking in sweeping views of the coastline. The Filbert Street Steps have a very “urban jungle” feel and if you’re looking to get your heart pumping, should be part of your North Beach itinerary.
Looking for more great views of the city? Check out these 15+ best places for San Francisco viewpoints!
Looking for an all-inclusive attraction pass? With CityPASS, you can save 44% on San Francisco’s Muni and Cable Car rides plus admission to the 4 best attractions!
Browse antique shops for vintage finds
The antique and vintage shops in the North Beach neighborhood are not as funky as those in Haight-Ashbury but are still well worth a visit for those looking for unique finds.
Some notable shops in the area to check out: Schein and Schein (specializes in antique maps, prints and rare books), the SF Rock Posters and Collectibles (vintage rock posters, handbills and memorabilia), Rendevous North Beach (curated vintage boutiques in an airy, modern space), and Frank’s Fisherman (nautical antiques and SF souvenirs).
Watch Beach Blanket Babylon
A North Beach entertainment gem, Steve Silver’s Beach Blanket Babylon is a must-see for those who love musicals. Dating back to 1974, this is the longest-running musical in the world. Known for its satirical tone, the show regularly pokes fun at modern-day politicians and pop culture stars.
The cast sing, dance, don wild wacky costumes and are most noted for their humongous/ornate hats. It’s quite crazy, to say the least! The production runs year-round, and tickets are available online.
Go on a Chinatown and North Beach Night Walking Tour
Want to make sure you don’t miss the historical significance of these neighborhoods? Stroll through North Beach and Chinatown, with an expert local guide, on this 3-hour night walking tour.
You’ll be able to discover the spots only locals know for dim sum, coffee, and other treats while you learn about the history and culture of these diverse districts from your knowledgeable guide.
Some of the things you’ll do: learn about Chinese architecture, learn how fortune cookies are made, sample Chinese dim sum and tea tastings, learn about the Beat generation, visit Western saloons, and savor North Beach’s delicious pizza options!
Grab a coffee at Caffe Trieste
One of the most charming cafes in North Beach and in San Francisco! This is first espresso house on the West Coast and probably the most well-known in America!
Cafe Trieste was opened in 1956 and despite the time that’s passed, it has maintained an authentic atmosphere, having attracted many well-known writers and artists including Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Alan Watts, Bill Cosby, Michael Douglas, and Vincent Price.
Another fun fact–Francis Ford Coppola wrote much of The Godfather‘s screenplay while sitting right there inside Cafe Trieste! Coffee purists will be delighted by the simple espresso-based drinks menu, plus there is live music on Saturdays.
Peruse through City Lights Bookstore
This historic bookstore was founded by Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the 1950s, and is known for its collection of books by Beat writers and other counterculture figures.
Visitors can also enjoy live readings and other events here!
Grab a slice of pizza at Golden Boy Pizza
Welcome to this dive-y, unassuming pizza spot that has made a huge name for itself in the local community. If you had to choose just one slice, the thing to eat at Golden Boy is their garlic clam pizza.
The slices are served in thick squares and packed plentifully with fresh toppings. Definitely well worth the $5 a slice.
Listen to live music at Comstock Saloon
Founded in 1907, Comstock Saloon is one of North Beach’s oldest eating and drinking establishments. It features live jazz on a nightly basis (no cover), which makes it a super-economical option while you’re in the area.
You can’t miss the old-school decor, complete with wooden booths, antique ceiling fans and a long mahogany bar. The well-dressed Comstock Saloon bartenders serves both classic and inventive cocktails and the saloon offers a daily happy hour.
If you’re here on the weekend, check out their weekend brunch.
Eat Italian food at Sotto Mare
Tucked between other establishments in the North Beach neighborhood is this lively, bustling, seafood restaurant, Sotto Mare. The old-school North beach vibe here is so great and inviting. It’s a small restaurant, packed with people, clanging utensils, and the sounds of chatter!
If you get a seat on the ground floor, the view of the kitchen as the cooks work and prepare seafood dishes is great entertainment. No matter what you do, you will have to order the Cioppino, their signature dish.
Dine at Betty Lou’s
Despite what you may think from the sound of this restaurant, it’s not a diner. It’s actually one of the best Italian restaurants in North Beach!
If Sotto Mare’s line is too long for you, head on over to Betty Lou’s for even better Italian fare (yup, I said it!). My go-to dish is the seafood pasta, but I hear truly amazing things about the wok-fried crab too!
The seafood linguine and Mike’s wok-fried crab are a must. A must, I tell you!
Go on a Chinatown and North Beach food crawl
Discover the foods of two of San Francisco’s most popular neighborhoods—Chinatown and North Beach (aka Little Italy)—on a walking food tour with a guide who can provide more information about the city’s culinary scene than you’d get on your own.
Food tastings on this tour may include items such as dim sum, handmade fortune cookies, boba milk tea, a Chinese dessert, pizza, and cannoli. Plus, visit a rooftop for a view of Alcatraz Island and San Francisco Bay.
Check out the nightlife
North Beach has a lively nightlife scene, with many bars and clubs to choose from. And when I say lively, I mean it. Good luck trying to find parking on a Friday to Sunday night here!
Be sure to check out Vesuvio Cafe, a historic Beat hangout, and The Saloon, which claims to be the oldest bar in San Francisco.
THINGS TO DO IN SAN FRANCISCO’S CHINATOWN
Snap some photos at Dragon’s Gate
Start at Dragon’s Gate on Grant and Bush St. Take a good, hard look at all of the dragons, fish and lions on this ornate pagoda-topped gate located at the southernmost entrance to Chinatown.
Also known as Gateway Arch, this is the only authentic Chinatown Gate in North America! Similar to ceremonial gates in Chinese villages, there are three passageways–two small side ones for “common folk” and a large center passageway for dignitaries.
It sure is a beautiful sight to see!
Walk to Stockton Street
Take a quick stroll over to Stockton Street to experience the very strong Chinese influence in the area. Stockton’s Chinatown section consists of sidewalks teem with elderly Chinese out shopping.
The area is truly reminiscent of busy districts I’ve visited in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong! Many of the ground-floor stores display food items ranging from barbecued ducks and other freshly cooked deli meats to live fish swimming in tanks and vegetable/fruit fill bins displayed outside.
If you want a taste of locals shopping for groceries, checking out Stockton gai (street in Chinese) is a must.
Have dim sum in Chinatown
Servers wheeling around carts of hot food around the restaurant, unlimited hot tea refills—what’s not to like about dim sum? Since San Francisco is a fairly expensive city to visit, going out for dim sum in Chinatown offers some of the best value on food in the city.
My friends and I can typically eat a full meal and still only pay less than $20 per person. (Ugh, inflation.)
Never had dim sum before? Start with freshly steamed BBQ pork buns, shiu mai, spare ribs, or freshly baked egg tarts. These are sure to be winners at the table.
Karaoke in Chinatown
There are so many good dive bars and karaoke bars in Chinatown! Hard to believe, but it’s actually worth sticking around til nighttime to check out the unique vibes here. Plus, you’re sure to interact with more locals than tourists or affluent tech transplants.
Some notable bars include Bow Bow Cocktail Lounge (hidden gem, open karaoke space with lovable owner) and Li Po Cocktail Lounge (tropical vibes, famous for their Chinese Mai Tai).
Try the egg tarts at Golden Gate Bakery
Coming from someone who’s been to Hong Kong multiple times (home of the egg tart), nothing beats Golden Gate Bakery’s egg tarts. There are so creamy, soft and irresistibly flaky.
It’s best when it’s warm and straight out of the oven, which is how you’ll receive them. Seriously one of the best things about Chinatown!
As the bakery is very popular, plan accordingly and be prepared to wait. And from time to time, they love to be closed for extended amounts of time throughout the year. You can use this Facebook page to stalk (I mean, check) if they’re open.
Buy fortune cookies at Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
Did you know that fortune cookies were first made in California in the 1890s or early 1900s? If you want a deep dive into how they’re made, stop by the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in Chinatown for a free tour to learn more about the process and grab a few samples on your way out.
A variety of different fortune cookies are also available for purchase in their store. Every time we stop by, we try to support them by buying something — even though we don’t LOVE fortune cookies. It would be a shame if they ever closed — they’re a local institution!
Pro Tip: If you can’t get enough of the Chinese eats, sights, and culture, consider checking out Clement Street in the Richmond District between Park Presidio Blvd and Arguello Blvd. Though less touristy, this is where a ton of authentic and delicious Chinese eateries are located. Some locals even consider this the ‘real Chinatown’. Must-try when you’re there: Good Luck Dim Sum, Marco Polo (gelato) and Genki Crepes.
Get matcha treats at Matcha Cafe Maiko
Matcha Cafe Maiko is a must-visit destination in San Francisco’s Chinatown for anyone who loves matcha or wants to try it for the first time. This cozy grab-and-go dessert shop offers a wide range of matcha treats, including soft-serve ice cream, lattes, and shaved ice, all made with high-quality matcha sourced from Japan.
The cafe is located on Grant Avenue, one of the main streets in Chinatown, making it a convenient stop during a day of exploring the neighborhood. Be sure to try the signature Maiko Special, which includes soft serve ice cream, matcha jelly, and mochi, for the ultimate matcha experience!
Visit the Tin How Temple
The Tin How Temple is the oldest extant Taoist temple in San Francisco’s Chinatown (built in 1852), and one of the oldest still-operating Chinese temples in the United States! It is dedicated to the Chinese sea goddess Mazu, who is known as Tin How in Cantonese.
Visitors can admire the intricate carvings and decorations, and learn about the temple’s history and significance.
Walk up the stairs of Macondray Lane
Macondray Lane is a charming alleyway located in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown that offers a glimpse into the city’s historic past. The lane is lined with beautiful gardens and historic homes, some of which date back to the 1800s.
Walk up the steep stairs and admire the Victorian architecture and colorful facades of the homes. The street is also known as the inspiration for the fictional Barbary Lane in Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” series, which has become a beloved part of San Francisco’s literary history.
If you’re looking for a quick break from the hustle and bustle of Chinatown, go enjoy a peaceful moment in this hidden gem of the city.
Again, it’s steep, so comfortable shoes are recommended!
HOW TO GET TO NORTH BEACH AND CHINATOWN (PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION)
BUS: 20, 30, and 45 run through North Beach and drop off at a variety of locations in the neighborhood
BART: Montgomery St stop (then walk 4-5 blocks to get to Dragon’s Gate)
CABLE CAR: All three cable cars run through San Francisco Chinatown. The conductor will tell you where to get off for Chinatown.
BUS: 1 California
Get transportation with CityPASS: Save 44% on San Francisco’s Muni and Cable Car rides plus admission to the 4 best attractions!
WHERE TO STAY IN NORTH BEACH AND CHINATOWN, SAN FRANCISCO
There are tons of lodging accommodations in San Francisco ranging from budget-friendly to luxurious. Hotels tend to cost a bit more than in other urban cities, so take care to do some research before settling on an option. North Beach and Chinatown are safe neighborhoods, so any hotel around there should be good.
Here are some nearby hotels I recommend checking out:
Handlery Union Square Hotel – This San Francisco hotel is in Union Square, a 5-minute walk from the Powell Street cable car line. It features an outdoor pool and modern, spacious rooms. Guests will also have access to a fitness center one block from the hotel and an on-site sauna. Handlery is located 0.5 miles away from Chinatown and 1 mile away from North Beach.
Riu Plaza Fisherman’s Wharf – Located within 10 minutes of a walk from Pier 39, the family-friendly Hotel Riu Plaza Fisherman’s Wharf is a nonsmoking accommodation that features an outdoor pool. Guests can relax by the outdoor fire pits or enjoy their beautifully decorated rooms (with premium bedding). Ghirardelli Square and the North Beach neighborhood is a 12 minutes’ walk from this hotel.
Not what you’re looking for? Check for more North Beach/Chinatown hotel pricing and availability here.
ESSENTIAL TIPS FOR VISITING SAN FRANCISCO, CA
- If you’re driving into the city from elsewhere, be prepared for the horrendous Bay Area traffic, especially on weekdays during the morning and afternoon rush hours. The same goes for driving out of the city! Hopping onto the bridge to leave San Francisco could take almost an hour during rush hour. Plan your drives accordingly to avoid traffic.
- Do not rent a car if you’re primarily going to stay in SF. Traffic sucks and parking is an expensive nightmare. What’s worse is that if you do rent a car, many hotels charge $35+ for overnight parking. If you’re considering street parking as an alternative, good luck because most hotels are located in metered street parking areas. San Francisco is relatively small, so most tourist attractions are close to each other and public transportation options are plentiful.
- 511.org is a great resource that will provide you with detailed SF and Bay Area transportation information. Available both as an app and on the web, it should be your go-to resource for Bay Area traffic, transit, carpool, vanpool, and bicycling information. Since it’s catered towards commuters, it’s more comprehensive than Google Maps.
- Dress in layers. Even in the summer, mornings and evenings in San Francisco can be cool and chilly due to the coastal climate. Packing layers when you head out to explore will help you stay prepared for any kind of weather. Of my 20+ years of living in the Bay Area, I have never gone to SF without bringing a jacket with me.
- Wear extremely comfortable walking shoes. Even though public transportation is plentiful, San Francisco is a very walkable city and you’re going to be doing some hill climbing while you’re at it.
- Expect fog and wind while in San Francisco, and bring layers so that when it rolls in, you’re prepared! Sure there are clear, sunny days, but that’s more common in the summer and early fall.
ANNUAL EVENTS IN SAN FRANCISCO
- Golden Gate Park Band (April to October)
- Bay to Breakers (3rd Sunday of May)
- Stern Grove Festival Concerts (June to August)
- Yerba Buena Gardens Free Concerts (May to October)
- North Beach Festival (June)
- SF Pride Week (June)
- Shakespeare in the Park (June to September)
- Salsa Festival on the Fillmore (June)
- Fillmore Jazz Festival (July)
- Folsom Street Festival (September)
- Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (October)